In the first scene of School Shooter, now playing at Spotlighters Theater in Baltimore, the audience meets four characters on a seemingly ordinary Monday morning, then watches their lives change unexpectedly in a single moment.
It is a theme with which playwright Rosemary Frisino Toohey is not unfamiliar.
In 1997, Toohey was driving on the Capital Beltway to her anchor job at WTOP radio in Washington when she was involved in a hit-and-run accident. When she recovered, she decided she no longer wanted to get up at 3 a.m. and brave traffic every day. She decided to turn her full attention to playwriting.
She had dabbled in playwriting for many years, but her jobs as a radio anchorwoman and mother of four kept her too busy to focus on it.
Her first full-length play, Gladys in Wonderland, tells the story of a woman who refuses to accept an invitation from the Grim Reaper because she has green bananas and a fresh batch of doughnuts in her kitchen. It was followed by Animal Instincts, then Sea Food Buffet, parts of which have been produced in New York and Los Angeles, and which took second prize in the 2000 Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
Her work got the attention of Bob Russell, the executive producer and artistic director at Spotlighters. "She has a wonderful way of capturing the essence of a character through her lines," Russell said of Toohey. He approached her about an idea he had in the wake of a school shooting in Paducah, Ky.
Toohey, a 56-year-old Stoneleigh resident, was reluctant at first. "It took me to a place that wasn't a place I wanted to go. I think when you're a mother, you read about these things and you think how horrible and then you think, thank goodness it's happening somewhere else," she said. But she took the assignment.
In School Shooter, eight actors portray more than 30 characters caught in the aftermath of a school shooting, including reporters, social workers, even the ghosts of victims, all attempting to explain why a 15-year-old would turn a gun on his classmates.
Toohey spent months researching school shootings. "I noticed there were eerily similar profiles of the shooters, of the cities and towns where the shootings take place. Even the time of year was similar."
Toohey's own experiences, and those of her children, inform the play. The mother of a victim regrets fighting with her daughter that morning; the killer's mother wishes she could take her son his favorite cereal in jail.
"My character, Sarah, is all about school," said actress Belle Gaskin, 26, who portrayed one of the victims. "When the play opens, she's stressing about a poster. Rosemary told me that [Sarah] sounds like her own daughter in that scene."
Toohey, a Baltimore native, graduated from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in 1968 and went to work at WETT radio in Ocean City. She has worked in radio for 31 years now, and is a Saturday anchor on WTOP.
Her work has led to parts in industrial films and work in films and TV shows, including the movies Runaway Bride and Red Dragon.
Toohey, though, considers herself primarily a playwright. Recently, she was awarded a $1,000 grant by the Maryland Arts Council. Her next play, Boy Meets Girl Meets Boy, is a comedy exploring relationships.
"At this stage in my life, I'm moving more into the world of imagination," Toohey said. "I've heard that you can be a poet when you're young, but you need to be older to be a playwright. ... I certainly couldn't have written School Shooter when I was 22."
When: Tonight at 8 p.m.
Where: Spotlighters Theater, 817 N. Charles St.